The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Statement on the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework
The process by which this framework was developed has been open and prolonged. From September 2000 to March 2001, the framework review panel held 23 regional meetings. In April 2001, a statewide survey was conducted to solicit feedback on the 1997 framework and the existing assessment system. In July 2001, the board voted to change the structure of the high school portion of the framework to allow for an end-of-course assessment in U.S. history in either the 10th or 11th grade. This change was adopted primarily to ensure that when history & social science is incorporated into the graduation requirement (as per the Education Reform Act), the focus will be U.S., rather than world history. In November 2001 a discussion draft was submitted to the board and put out for public comment. Through December, the department received over 700 comments. During January and February of 2002, 15 regional meetings were held, involving about 600 attendees, to discuss the new draft. In May, a more complete draft framework was presented to the board and was sent out for public comment. Five additional public meetings were held over the summer. In September, a nearly final draft was submitted to the board, in preparation for our meeting and vote today.
At no point along the way has there been any doubt or confusion about the overall direction and content of the framework. Specifically, the board and the department were committed to maintaining the 1997 framework's core knowledge focus, while presenting the material in a more useful grade-by-grade format and better integrating the learning skills with the content standards.
The document before us is faithful to those well-established objectives. At the same time it has gone through many editorial iterations in response to the many comments that have been received from educators and scholars.
In that nothing is ever perfect, there can always be a plausible argument for further consideration and consultation. But, in this case, I am not persuaded that prolonged discussion and redrafting will yield major substantive improvements to the content standards that are before us today. The process to date has gone on for two years. The points of philosophical disagreement that remain will not simply go away through further negotiation. And continued uncertainty over this matter will exact real costs, by damaging the ability of schools and teachers to adjust their curriculum in a timely fashion. The board has a responsibility to make a decision, and the time to act is now.
This does not mean that there is not more work to do in order to enhance the framework and, in the Commissioner's words, "make it come alive."
The framework is not a straight jacket. Our focus has been to answer the question of what students should know and be able to do, rather than how districts should design curriculum or how teachers should deliver instruction. There is nothing in this document that discourages, let alone prevents, teachers from using integrative concepts as a means of teaching history and the social sciences. Indeed, the framework's introduction suggests several possible overarching themes that might be used for exactly this purpose.
Equally important, the assessment plan, which includes only three tests-one on US history and geography in fifth grade, another on world geography and ancient civilizations in seventh grade, and a third on U.S history in 10th or 11th grade-ensures that schools will not be forced to follow in lock-step the specific scope and sequence implied by the framework.
With the adoption of these standards, we can turn our attention to giving teachers and curriculum specialists more guidance in how best to deliver instruction. This is a process that must involve practicing educators. Indeed, active teachers and curriculum developers must lead the way.
In addition to these more procedural or technical issues, there are several substantive complaints that have been made regarding the framework's content, and in defense of the good work that has been done I feel compelled to respond to at least a couple of them.
Some critics complain that the framework is primarily focused on history and content knowledge, while giving short shrift to other disciplines, such as sociology and psychology. This criticism is entirely accurate, but I happen to believe it reflects a strength, rather than a weakness. History must be at the center of a social studies curriculum. Students cannot understand their place in the world, the foundations of their country or their responsibilities as citizens without a deep and persistent study of the people, events, institutions, and ideas of the past.
Too many social studies curricula today place history on the periphery, merely as an adjunct to the study of human relations and contemporary problems. Such an approach results in instruction that leaves students with barely any knowledge of authentic history, imparting little more than a set of highly selective, out-of-context, historical snapshots. This narrow focus on "relevance" and on using history to construct lessons that we can apply to the present, is fundamentally ahistorical and results in a distortion of the past by viewing it through the lens of today. In part, this framework is consciously intended as a counter-balance to this kind of curriculum.
Finally, let me address the charge that this document is "Eurocentric." This framework includes four full years of world history, in which about 40 percent of the standards relate to non-European societies. Of course, this statistic means that the majority of standards do in fact relate to European history. I believe this balance is entirely justified. I will not apologize for a framework that places the study of Western civilization at its core. Although we are an open society that has been deeply enriched by many non-Western influences, we cannot escape the fact that the United States is firmly anchored to the Western tradition. Indeed, one could argue that in the year 2002 we are at its epicenter.
The philosophical principles that form the basis of our political and social institutions are European in origin. And if students are to learn about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, they must be steeped in the history and ideas that comprise Western civilization. This is not only an objective fact, but it is something for which I am deeply grateful. We are blessed to live in a country that holds sacred the ideals of individual freedom, equality before the law, pluralism, and representative government. Students educated in our public schools should not only understand the historical and philosophical foundations of these concepts, but they should also learn to cherish them.
In sum, I believe the framework before us today is sound and worthy of our support. At the same time, I think the board should encourage the department to work closely with educators in the field to develop enhancements to the document, including a rich set of guidelines to help curriculum developers and teachers create courses and units that make meaningful connections across disciplines, time and space, and that generate enthusiasm among students.